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February 20, 2007

In Memoriam: World War One - Jeremy Black on World War One - Part One

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - offers a history of World War One.

A world war was not the goal sought by the combatants in 1914. World War One began, indeed, as a conflict in the Balkans and, in part, was a continuation of the assertiveness and ambitions revealed there, particularly over the previous decade. Like the First and Second Balkan Wars, the ethnic and territorial rivalries of a Balkan world, where violence was the principal method of pursuing disputes, were important. World War One, however, was different because a great power, Austria, was one of the original combatants, while others intervened forcefully and from the outset. Yet, the very fact that intervention by these powers had been very different in type and intention in the two previous Balkan wars, and, also, in earlier crises, such as those of 1876-8 and 1908, indicates that the course of events was far from inevitable. Indeed, tension over the position of Serbia had led Austria and Russia to deploy troops in threatening positions from the autumn of 1912 until March 1913, but the forces were then withdrawn.

Austria felt under threat: from Russian-supported Serbian assertiveness, and Serbia's challenge to Austria's international position in the Balkans and to the stability of Austria's Balkan possessions. War with Serbia seemed the answer to domestic problems for Austria, and, in particular, the way to ensure this stability. The Russians, in contrast, were both encouraged by Serbian assertiveness and ready to see Serbia as a crucial protégé. Any clash between Austria and Russia would have been very serious, involving conflict from Poland to the Balkans, and much of the diplomacy of the previous century had been designed to prevent such an eventuality. In 1914, however, the prospect of German support emboldened the Austrians, and made the prospect, both of war and of a more widespread conflict, more likely.

In the early 1910s, powerful figures in the German political and military elite felt threatened by the build-up of Russian power and by encirclement by the Russo-French alliance. Growing Russian military strength, not least the development of her strategic railway net, led to pressure in Germany for a pre-emptive war. This railway system benefited from French investment specifically designed to improve the ability of Russia to mobilize, and to act once mobilized, an infrastructure that served strategic and operational goals. In the event of war, this made it less likely that Germany would be able to defeat France before confronting slower-moving Russian forces, and the railway system was therefore seen by German planners as likely to constrain Germany. A feeling of being under threat encouraged pressure for war within Germany, and this sense of threat was exacerbated by Turkey's defeat in the First Balkan War, which made Russia relatively stronger, and, more generally, by a widespread belief in the inevitability of conflict, which strengthened the desire to begin it at the most opportune moment.

The values of the period were important. Distrust of other states, and a willingness to fight, owed much to cultural and ideological factors, although that did not explain why war broke out in specific crises but not others. The Social Darwinism of the 1870s and beyond, with its emphasis on natural competition, encouraged a belief in a world that was necessarily red in tooth and claw. Militarism appeared natural. Late Romanticism glorified war and struggle as a means to discover identity and purity through commitment and pain. The bulk of the educated elites believed in the moral value of striving, self-sacrifice and war; and the role of nationalism ensured that war between nations was seen as natural. Despite the popularity in some circles of pacifism, there was little interest in internationalism, except amongst the unempowered left.

These cultural and ideological assumptions do not explain the outbreak of World War One, but they help account for the way in which small groups of decision-makers were able to respond to the crisis without much pressure being exerted on them to maintain peace. At the same time, it was a limited war, not a total one, that was sought. When Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July, it believed that the prospect of German support would deter Russia from intervention. On 29-30 July, both the German and the Russian governments responded hesitantly to the declaration. On the 29th, the Germans, concerned indeed that it would not be possible to localize the struggle, suggested to the Austrians that they stage a limited war in which they restricted themselves to the occupation of Belgrade, Serbia's capital. The Austrian government, however, was not interested. On 30 July, Russia ordered a general mobilization against both Austria and Germany, although only after Tsar Nicholas II had been persuaded to reverse a decision to rescind the order. This general mobilization led Germany, whose army wanted war, to decide on war against Russia and its ally France, which it was confident of beating. As with its Austrian ally, the German government did not seek the full range of conflict that was to break out: the Germans hoped that Britain would remain neutral, and Britain was a minor concern to German planners. The British government, however, was unwilling to see France's position in the balance of power overthrown, and unprepared to accept Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality, of which Britain was a guarantor.

Britain's entry ensured that the war was global to an extent that no earlier one had been. This was not so much a matter of the range of combat, as of the intensity of links. If British and French warships and forces had fought across the world in 1754-63, 1778-83 and 1793-1815, the units had generally been small, and there was no equivalent to the intensity of links shown in 1914-18. The latter included the large-scale movement of troops to Europe, particularly Algerians (from the French empire), Australians, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders and South Africans (British empire), and, from 1917, Americans to the Western Front in France and Belgium, and Australians, Indians and New Zealanders (British empire) to the Mediterranean theatre.

As such, the war represented the most intensive, wide-ranging and effective military articulation of the European colonial empires hitherto, the troops deployed along the Suez Canal in 1915, to protect it from Turkish attack, 'a revelation of Empire' to John Monash, an Australian brigade commander. In some respects, indeed, alongside the display of mutual interdependence and related concessions, the collective effort represented by the war led to a strengthening of empire. In London, an Imperial War Cabinet, including representatives of the Dominions, met from 1917, and provided a public sign of cohesion in decision-making that countered the emphasis on distinctive interests, although the Dominions had grown less, not more, dependent on London by the end of the war. Britain's role as a market for imperial goods was fostered by military needs and political preference. The impact of the war on food imports to Britain from Continental Europe ensured that the British market increased for imperial exporters, such as South Africa.

The global dimension was also seen in conflict outside Europe. Part of this matched the earlier pattern of Anglo-French conflict, with British and British-allied forces directed against German colonies. One major difference, however, was a consequence of the recent enhancement of Western power for, whereas, prior to 1815, the British had had essentially to capture a few bases, principally port-cities, in order to secure the conquest of French colonies, now the German colonies enjoyed control of extensive interiors that posed a more serious military challenge to conquerors, and one that amphibious operations were less able to secure. This was to be made abundantly clear in the lengthy struggle to defeat German forces in East Africa, a struggle that continued to the end of the war. In Africa, this challenge also meant that Allied forces faced formidable logistical hurdles. Confronting them required the recruitment of large numbers of African porters, and this was an aspect of the acute disruption caused by the war. Many porters died, while their recruitment itself was very disruptive. The war also represented the last major stage of the partition of Africa, and certainly led to an intensification of European control there. The distribution of German territories among the victors, however, did not always match military events. For example, French strategy in West Africa was designed to ensure that France gained more of the Cameroons than the extent of French operations justified. British concern to satisfy France ensured that this goal was realized: Africa serving to permit (by offsetting advantages) the furtherance of European goals. Force was also available to enforce imperial authority, as with the British expedition of 1918 against the Turkana of Kenya.

Trans-oceanic conflict included the struggle with German surface raiders which were hunted down in the early stages of the war. It is possible to see this in terms of one of the definitions of total war, namely range. The East Asiatic Squadron under Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, the leading German naval force outside Europe at the outset of the war, sailed across the Pacific to Chile, where a weaker British force was defeated off Coronel on 1 November. Spee then sailed on to attack the Falkland Islands, a British colony, off which he was defeated by a stronger British force on 8 December. Individual German warships elsewhere were eventually hunted down, although not before the Emden had inflicted some damage, and more disruption, to shipping in the Indian Ocean, and had shelled Madras. Yet, the Emden was lost to the combination of naval fire and a reef in the Cocos Islands on 9 November 1914, and the threat from German surface raiders was essentially restricted to the opening months of the war. Indeed, Allied success in blockading the North Sea, the English Channel and the Adriatic, and in capturing Germany's overseas colonies, ensured that, after the initial stages of the war and despite the use of submarines, the range of German naval operations was smaller than those of American and French privateers when attacking British trade between 1775 and 1815.

This was also the first European war in which a major East Asian and a major New World power had intervened. That both Japan and the USA supported the Allies was very important to the success of the latter, and a measure of the failure of German strategy at the world scale. China also declared war on Germany, although its impact was obviously less. However ably the Germans operated in Europe, they had not adequately planned for a global struggle, but this was an aspect of their expectation of a short conflict, in short one that, at least in terms of duration, was not seen as total. Bound to Britain by treaty, Japan was a bellicose state that saw ready opportunity from entering the war in the shape of gaining German positions in China and the Western Pacific, and it did both, capturing them speedily and easily. This served as a prelude to activity and expansion in the 1920s and 1930s in pursuit of imperial ambitions to replace European nations as the dominant power in these areas.

In the USA, in contrast, there was active hostility to the idea of participation in the European war, as it was seen as alien to American interests and antipathetic to her ideology. The USA had a strong tradition of neutrality and isolationism, but that did not mean a pacific culture, nor an aversion to war and the use of force, as Spain had noted in 1898. The commemoration of the War of Independence and, even more, the Civil War in the USA lent heroism and purpose to the notion of conflict. Wars against the Native Americans had also played a major role in the definition of national identity (for those not of Native ancestry), contributing to a society that was violent and bellicose, even if its politics were not particularly belligerent.

The recent American background, however, was of small-scale expeditionary warfare that required neither conscription nor industrial mobilization. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt had proclaimed the 'Roosevelt Corollary', a supplement to the Monroe Doctrine, by which the 'wrongdoing' or 'impotence' of any state in the western hemisphere could justify and require American intervention. As a consequence, Nicaragua was occupied in 1912, Haiti in 1915, and the Dominican Republic in 1916, and troops were sent into Mexico in 1916. The focus was not on great-power confrontation. Indeed, when war with Germany was declared in 1917, the American navy had no appropriate war plan for the Atlantic, a key symptom of a more generally poorly-prepared force. The major shipbuilding programme authorized in 1916 had not yet come to fruition.

Concern over German intervention in Latin America, specifically apparent willingness to encourage Mexican revanche against the USA for losses in the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, played a major role in the deterioration in relations that led the USA to declare war on Germany in April 1917. Alongside Germany’s crass wartime diplomacy, her actions, especially the unrestricted submarine warfare that sank American ships, had led to a major shift in attitudes, in which Americans became persuaded of the dangerous consequences of German strength and ambitions, but also did so in a highly moralized form that encouraged large-scale commitment. Brazil, the largest state in Latin America, had also suffered from the unrestricted submarine warfare and, in October 1917, it declared war on Germany. The Brazilian contribution was more modest than in World War Two, when about 25,000 troops were sent to fight as far as part of the Allied army in Italy in 1944-5. In World War One, instead, only a small naval squadron was eventually dispatched, and it did not see active service.

In contrast, both American and Japanese warships were deployed in European waters in co-operation with Britain. Five American dreadnoughts joined the British Grand Fleet in December 1917, four sailing with it on 24 April 1918 when it failed to intercept a German sortie into the North Sea. The key American naval contribution was in destroyers, fast enough to track submarines and to keep them submerged. From May 1917, American warships contributed to anti-submarine patrols in European waters. To assist convoying in the Mediterranean, American warships were based in the British base of Gibraltar, and Japanese ones in the British base of Malta.

Another aspect of the global dimension represented a continuation of earlier patterns of imperial conquest of the non-European world, with Britain and Russia seeking to conquer parts of the Turkish empire. As with earlier Western pressure on the Turkish and Chinese empires, this, however, was to be more a matter of successes on the periphery than a triumphant overturning of the empire, akin, for example, to the Spanish conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires in the sixteenth century. Indeed, the major blow aimed at the heart of the Turkish empire, the attempt in 1915 to force the Dardanelles, so that naval pressure could be brought to bear on the Turkish capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul), was a total failure.

The campaign illustrated the strength of the defensive. An Anglo-French attempt to force the Dardanelles was stopped by minefields, shore batteries, and an unwillingness, in the face of the loss of ships, to accept the risk of further operations. There had been a belief that the Dardanelles could be taken by naval power alone because of a serious underestimation of the strength of the forts and of the Turkish ability and willingness to resist attack. Subsequently, troops were landed in an attempt to gain control of the landward side of the Turkish position, but advances were held as a result of a combination of poor Allied planning and generalship, Turkish fighting skills, and the general strength of defensive firepower in this period, particularly when unsuppressed by artillery fire. The fighting rapidly became static. In May 1915, Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood of the Indian Army, the commander of the Anzac (New Zealand and Australian) force, reported that deficiencies in the attacking force had ensured that he had been pushed back onto the defensive and 'practically reduced to a state of siege'.

More generally, the war was important in the shifting of power away from Europe. In part, this was a matter of the heavy human and financial costs of the conflict, which, relatively, were more serious than the physical devastation inflicted because, compared to World War Two, far less of the Continent served as a battlefield and far far less was bombed, let alone bombed heavily. In part, this shift away from Europe was a matter of the rise, in absolute and relative terms, of the power of the USA and, to a lesser extent, of Japan. Relations within the Western empires also changed, with an upsurge in nationalism that influenced the nature of imperial relations. In part, the experience of different military conditions established disruptive norms. Birdwood noted in Gallipoli in 1915, that the Martinique and Guadeloupe troops in the French forces: are

treated in precisely the same way as if they were Frenchmen, which from our Indian Army point of view strikes one as curious.
Because they did not wish to divert national troops from the Western Front, the French deployed a considerable number of troops from their empire at Gallipoli, their division in the original assault being part of the Corps Expéditionnaire d'Orient and including North African and Senegalese troops.

Although tensions within empires increased, opposition to imperial control was generally suppressed, as in French West Africa in 1916, and the French Sahara the following year; although the Italians encountered serious problems in Libya. In response, the Italians used gas and aircraft from 1917. In 1916, there was a major rising in Russian Central Asia as a result of attempts to conscript large numbers of Muslims for war work, particularly digging trenches. The brutal suppression of the rising led to very heavy casualties, not least as a result of both large-scale deportations and flight in harsh conditions. More generally, the war represented an opportunity but, even more, a need, to expand imperial control in order to contain possible discontent, pre-empt exploitation by rivals, and tap resources. This was particularly apparent in the Islamic world. In 1914, Britain annexed Cyprus and made Egypt a protectorate, while, in 1916, Qatar became independent from Turkish rule under British protection, and, in Sudan, British control increased with the conquest, in 1916, of the territory of Darfur, whose Sultan, Ali Dinar, had heeded Turkish calls for Islamic action. The British used aircraft and light lorries to provide speedy firepower and mobility in Darfur.

The Gallipoli operation encapsulated much of the problem with the offensive in World War One. Tim Travers has concluded that the Allies failed primarily at Gallipoli because of their inexperience of modern war, especially because the 1915 campaign took place early in the war,

before the learning curve, greater experience, and vastly improved technical ability provided solutions to the trench stalemate later in the war. In fact, tactics ate strategy at Gallipoli.
The British lack of trench warfare munitions led to improvisation in the Dardanelles, as on the Western Front, of hand grenades and mortars. Major-General Alexander Godley's explanation for failure there underlined the need to consider both sides:
the lack of fresh reinforcements, both in April and in August, the strength and superiority of the enemy, in troops, guns and positions, were the true causes of why we did not get across the peninsula and that it was not on account of bad plans, or failure of the troops, or bad orders, or want of water, or want of co-operation with the Navy.
As commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division, in fact, he showed questionable leadership.

Gallipoli was an example of how, repeatedly, during the war, strategic conception was not matched by tactical and operational success. In part, this was a matter of the absence of marked capability gaps in combat effectiveness, and thus not the product of military failure, but rather of the fact that there was no failure creating such a gap. This absence of marked capability gaps was related to the tactical and operational strength enjoyed by the defensive, particularly the role of entrenched firepower.

Much of the literature on the war deals with the consequences of the latter, particularly on the Western Front. Trench warfare stands as a model for the futility of the war, indeed, for some commentators, of war as a whole. Such warfare had not been sought by any of the participants.

Instead, while anticipating heavy casualties, all had sought to stage, and win, a war of manoeuvre. This was seen in 1914, as all the major armies launched offensives, intended to gain decisive advantage and also to win the psychological advantage. The German invasion of Belgium and France engages most attention, but should be seen alongside the French invasion of Lorraine, the Austrian of Serbia, and the Russian of East Prussia. All failed, ending the chance of a rapid military end to the war, or any part of it.

In part, these failures reflected the strength of the defence, particularly in the case of the failure of the French attacks, but more was involved, not least because some of the invasions were checked by counter-attacks within manoeuvre warfare. The limitations that invading powers faced in manoeuvre warfare, in particular sustaining mass and maintaining the tempo of attack, were serious, and helped to cause the failure of the German offensive. The question is whether manoeuvre warfare as conceived prior to World War One was, in fact,a real possibility for European armies fighting each other in the early twentieth century, or whether it was an illusion, so that a quick victory from outmanoeuvring the enemy was not plausible. In short, was trench warfare inevitable, or could it have been avoided by better planning, better generalship, or better tactics? Trench warfare had certainly not been avoided in Manchuria in 1904-5, nor in the Balkans in 1912-13.

Stopped in the battle of the Marne in September 1914, the Germans did not regain the freedom to stage an advance on a wide front on the Western Front until the spring of 1918, and the strategic and operational situation then was less promising for them and the width of the advance far narrower. The last opportunity for open, mobile warfare on the Western Front, before the closing stage of the war, occurred in Flanders in October-November 1914, as the Germans struggled to break through to the English Channel. The fighting in the resulting First Battle of Ypres was transitional, with hand-to-hand combat still taking place and 'with riflemen being as significant in its outcome as artillery', but all combatants were also increasingly aware of the shell shortages resulting from the failure to anticipate and meet the production demands of modern mass industrialized warfare. The opening campaign of the war in the West was instructive for all concerned, as pre-war plans largely fell apart, a product both of their deficiencies and of mistakes in execution.

The Allied success on the Western Front in 1914 was one of defence. Yet, although the superiority of the defensive emerged clearly, the Allies did not have that option. The opening campaign ended with Germany in control of most of Belgium and of much of France, and, in order to regain losses, it was necessary for the Allies to drive the Germans out because the German government was unwilling to accept a compromise peace that did not include substantial gains. This underlined the failure of the German 1914 offensive. It obliged the Allies to try to regain the territories lost, at great cost, but also encouraged German expansionism, and therefore nullified the strategic option for the Germans of a good compromise peace. As a result, their efforts were devoted to a goal that was not worth the costs and risks it entailed, one that in the end, proved fatal for German stability and territorial integrity, and those of their allies. Intransigence over war goals was scarcely novel, but its consequences were to be particularly deadly. As a result, total war has been seen as a development of World War One, not its cause.

If this set the strategic context, there was also the military conviction, held for example by the British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, that the German error had been to abandon their offensive prematurely (which was probably correct in the context of First Ypres), and that, instead, it was necessary to persist in attacks. This may appear foolish in light of the heavy casualties resulting from such offensives, but there was a finer line between success and failure than discussion of the war (and indeed other wars) often accepts. A recent defence of Haig's role, focusing on one of his most controversial operations, Third Ypres, claims

had he decided to halt the Flanders offensive after 4 October 1917, historians would undoubtedly have had a field day in blaming Haig for throwing away the opportunity to capitalize on the crisis in the German Army created by Plumer's offensives.
This is a reasonable point, and Haig's performance in command was patchy, and, on occasion, pretty good. Furthermore, the contrast between the hesitant initial German response to the Russian invasion of East Prussia in 1914, and the more confident sequel, in which the initiative was successfully seized and the Russians defeated, is more generally instructive.

As trench lines were dug in late 1914, manoeuvre gave way to static warfare in Belgium and France. In Eastern Europe, however, force-space ratios were different. The Eastern Front was double that of the length of the Western Front at the close of 1914, and the trench systems lacked comparable sophistication. Despite lower force-space ratios in Eastern Europe, it was still possible, if troops could be massed, to mount offensives successfully, and these led to the conquest of Serbia in 1915 and of Romania in 1916, both by Austrian, German and Bulgarian forces. The conquest of Romania was particularly rapid.

The entry of Bulgaria (1915) and Romania (1916) into the war, like that of Italy in 1915, reflected not a depth of commitment, but the continued determination and perceived need for second-rank powers to make assessments of opportunity. Far from the perceived ideology of either alliance playing a role, the key element was the gain of territories, small in themselves, but made important as a result of nationalist public myths, and their gain seen as a sign of success. Italy was offered gains at the expense of Austria, the Bulgarians were promised Macedonia and most of Thrace, and Romania sought Transylvania from Austria (more accurately from Hungary which was also ruled by the Habsburgs and is for reasons of brevity subsumed as part of Austria). Success in the war was less important in eventually making gains than the very fact of intervention on the right side, conspicuously so in the case of Romania, which was largely overrun, but which gained Transylvania in the eventual peace settlement and which, after an interlude in 1940-5, when it was returned to Hungary at Germany’s behest, still holds it today. Similarly, Belgium, although also very largely overrun by the Germans in 1914, made gains from Germany in Europe and Africa in the eventual peace treaty.

There were also major advances in the Eastern Front struggle between Austria-Germany and Russia. In 1915, the Germans overran Russian Poland, outfighting the indifferently-led and poorly-supplied Russians. Operations included the storming of fortified towns, such as Kaunas, which fell to the Germans in August 1915. The Russians were more successful against the Austrians, although not consistently so, and, in countering Russian attacks, the Austrians benefited from German support. The Russian army proved inadequate to the challenge, in part because its command culture remained anachronistic. Although the Russian General Staff Academy graduates were a meritocratic group, exposed to a scientific approach to war, they were also a small one. In general, an emphasis on lineage, connections and character did not guarantee an informed response to the problems posed by machine guns and entrenched defenders. This failure of response owed much to the continued conviction of the role of will in victory.

Russia was knocked out of the war in 1918, a consequence, in part, of its being outfought by the Germans but also of the working through of the political turmoil that began with the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. Soldiers played a major role in the overthrow, not so much that some units in St. Petersburg demonstrated for change, but rather than there was also a lack of willingness to fight for the Tsar, in part because of divisions within the officer corps. The same was true of the Communist coup that October, as the Provisional Government also was unable to rely on the military, because its willingness to fight on against the Germans compromised military co-operation. Alongside disaffection among the soldiers, some of the senior commanders were unwilling to fight for the government.

In this fashion, the Russian army made a key contribution to the history of the period, one that was more direct than issues of fighting quality. In contrast, although there was a short-term breakdown of control in part of the French army in 1917, the political reliability of other militaries remained high in 1917, despite heavy casualties and a lack of confidence in a speedy conclusion to the war. This aspect of the war still requires more study. Raising, supplying and training large forces was of scant value unless they were prepared to fight on. Even in Russia, although the offensive launched in June 1917 was poorly-supported by many of the troops, which helped wreck it, the army served until February 1918, when the failure of attempts to negotiate peace led to a renewal of the German attack and to mass desertions.

Differing responses to failure on the Western Front characterize much of the widely-read literature on the war. A major emphasis is on an impasse and indecisiveness that owed much to poor commanders and to antiquated command systems. The dominant tactical image is of machine-guns sweeping away lines of attackers. The power of the defensive, especially when firepower enhanced terrain advantages, in this case higher ground, was captured by General Birdwood who wrote from Gallipoli in 1915,

It seems quite ridiculous that we should be within some ten yards of each other, and yet I am unable to get into their trenches.
Failure on the battlefield is then seen as forcing decision to a different level, one of attritional conflict, in which the ability and willingness on both sides to accept horrific casualties, while causing the same, and also to mobilize fully the resources of society, led to a competitive race of death.

This account of what is presented as total war is taken further with an emphasis on the role of anti-societal strategies designed to weaken the capacity of the rival society to support conflict. The emphasis here is on unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany, and on the Allied blockade of Germany. This account adds a race to starvation to that of attritional conflict, and culminates with the claim that Allied victory stemmed from the indirect approach: blockade causing growing problems within Germany, culminating in the widespread disaffection in late 1918 that led the German government to accept an armistice. Prefiguring this, there is an emphasis on how the war in the East came to an end because of the successive overthrowing of Russian governments in 1917.

In short, the emphasis is not on the development of conflict, nor on how the war was won at the Front. This leads to an underrating of the ways in which both sides confronted the challenges of conducting large-scale war against heavily-armed opponents and, specifically, of overcoming the constraints of trench warfare. Much of the interesting work in recent decades in fact has been devoted to these subjects, has been revisionist in character, and has indicated the willingness and ability of both sides to address the problems of trench warfare. At the same time, there were important constraints, not least the difficulty of adapting to the large numbers of new officers and troops, most of whom were poorly-trained, as well as the problems of providing the required equipment, especially the heavy artillery pieces required when bombarding opposing trench lines, and the very large number of shells necessary to maintain bombardments. These were problems for all of the combatants from 1914, and the difficulties the Western Allies had experienced were to be revisited by the Americans in 1918, and helped to contribute to the heavy casualties they experienced. Writing from Gallipoli in December 1915 to the Commander-in-Chief for India, Birdwood emphasized the problem with new troops:

I have only one regular division, viz. the 29th, which as you know came out here as a most magnificent force of old soldiers from India. I fancy that about 80% of these have disappeared for one reason and another, so it now consists of a vast proportion of young soldiers. With the exception of my own [Anzac] corps, the other divisions are Territorial and New Army, and I am sorry to say that the former include certainly one so called division, which is to all intents and purposes, useless, while all are very short of artillery.
A lack of sufficient fire support was a major problem for many offensives, including the British one on the Somme in 1916. The key indicator in weaponry was the production of shells, and this was fully understood by contemporaries. There were important qualitative as well as quantitative improvements in the production of munitions. It was increased in Britain by involving the trade and by introducing cooperative group manufacture whereby each manufacturer within the group made some of the components of the munition. This allowed inspection to be carried out at one location, the premises where the components were put together, instead of at the premises of each manufacturer, thereby speeding up production. The increased skill of the trade reduced rejections, and the inspectors from the Outside Engineering Branch of the Ministry of Munitions ensured that production increased to meet demand. In 1916 and 1917, various unnecessary components in shells were eliminated, which also speeded up production. One of the problems faced by the British in 1915 and 1916 was the poor quality of their shells. So great was the improvement brought about by better working practices, greater experience and the inspectors, that prematures fell to 0.0004 percent, 1 in 250,000, the best rate in the Allied armies, and a formidable achievement of industrial application.

A focus on shells, however, did not preclude an emphasis as well on infantry weaponry. A combination of technological and tactical improvements helped in the provision of improved fire-support. By mid-1916, this was beginning to be provided for the British by the 3-inch Stokes light infantry mortar. By mid-1917, the Stokes had become a reliable infantry support weapon which could be quickly used to engage German strongpoints, mortars and machine guns. At the same time, rifle grenades were used in similar support and suppression roles. These tactics became effective during 1917, but developed during 1916. The British also used the Vickers machine gun to suppress enemy troop movements behind the front by indirect fire into map references over the heads of friendly troops.

Production had to rise rapidly to meet demand. For example, in the last quarter of 1914, only 2,164 hand and rifle grenades were produced in Britain, and, although, in the first six months of 1915, the figure had risen to 65,315, it was well below demand. Only in October 1915 did the output of the Mills No. 5 grenade meet demand when it passed 300,000 a week. Already, in 1915, the monthly demand for percussion grenades alone had risen to 252,000. British output of mortar ammunition rose from 50,000 rounds in April-June 1915 to 2,185,346 million rounds for April-June 1916. A total of 11,052,451 grenades were delivered from Britain in the second half of 1916. Deliveries of trench mortars from Britain rose from 12 in the last quarter of 1914 to 2,145 in the last quarter of 1917.

The problems of maintaining firepower were not only a matter of providing and transporting sufficient supplies to the artillery and infantry, no easy task in the chewed-up terrain of the battlefield, but also of dealing with problems arising from wear and tear, particularly, for the artillery, the mechanical difficulties arising from worn barrels, faulty recuperator springs and other defects. Usage thus contributed to greater inaccuracy, which considerably reduced the effectiveness of massed artillery.

Political constraints were also serious in helping explain failure, as they ensured that under-prepared forces had to act. Concern about the stability of alliances proved particularly important, leading, for example, to Allied attacks on the Western Front in a necessary, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to reduce pressure on Russia, while the Russian General Staff pressed for the offensive, finally launched in June 1917, in order to reduce German pressure on France and Britain. Given military limitations and political constraints, it is not surprising that many commanders, such as Haig and Robert Nivelle, the French commander in 1917, emphasized willpower. This was linked to an often misplaced confidence in the continued capability of the offensive, which led, for example, to the maintenance of appreciable cavalry forces, especially by the British, designed to achieve and exploit a breakthrough. Haig has been criticized for mistakenly clinging to notions of decisive battle and cavalry sweeps, and this has been presented in terms of a failure to accept the attritional logic that ‘industrial war’ required not the gain of large amounts of territory, but rather breaking enemy resistance by killing large numbers, a goal to be achieved by massing the firepower to blast them from their defensive lines. Subsequently, Haig was to argue that the Allied offensives of 1915-17 on the Western Front were a crucial preparation for the final victory in that they wore the Germans down, but, at the time, he wanted them to be far more decisive, tactically, operationally and strategically.

Despite the problems encountered in confronting the nature and circumstances of trench warfare, there was also a willingness to rethink the situation. In part, this was strategic and operational. A good example is provided by the new understanding of German strategy offered by Erich von Falkenhayn, who became Chief of the German General Staff in 1914 after the failure of the initial campaign. Appreciating that Germany did not have the resources to defeat its enemies in the rapid, decisive campaign required by pre-war doctrine, he sought, instead, a negotiated peace, albeit on terms favourable to Germany. This built on earlier discussion, by Moltke the Elder and the academic commentator Hans Delbrück, of the limitations of the concept of decisive victory.

To develop a matching new operational method, however, proved difficult, not least because of firm opposition within the officer corps which revealed the difficulties of implementing policy. In 1915, Falkenhayn's attempt to force Russia into a separate peace failed, in part because breakthroughs at the Front did not result in strategic results. In 1916, Falkenhayn accepted that a breakthrough on the West was impossible, due to the defensive strength of modern weapons. Instead, he sought in the Verdun offensive, launched that February, to break the French will by forcing the French army to mount costly counterattacks to a successful German attack with limited objectives. As with the German use of defensive positions, for example the retreat to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, this reflected a traditional practice in warfare, the attempt to exploit an understanding of ground. In his plan, the strategic, operational and tactical dimension of the war were in concert.

Yet, as so often with planning, there was over-determination, with everything depending on the 5th Army achieving its goals and on the French doing exactly what Falkenhayn wanted. In the event, the Germans were unable to profit from the offensive they launched. Instead of rapid results, Falkenhayn had increasingly to rely upon the effects of a steady hemorrhaging of the French army brought about by a near-continuous German offensive. This, however, engaged most of the German reserve, and led to heavy German casualties, while, despite serious losses, French willpower remained strong. There was also a basic strategic flaw, in that any peace on German terms was politically unacceptable to Germany’s enemies, while the Allies could afford the costs of wearing down the German army.

In 1918, the Germans were to be more successful tactically on the Western Front, thanks to their abandonment of attacks by massed formations, in favour of the use of infiltration tactics that they had already employed with effect on both the Eastern and the Italian Fronts. Elite stormtroopers were used to penetrate opposing positions, isolating strong-points and disrupting the cohesion of opponents. This proved very effective at the tactical level, but the Germans were poor at exploiting their advantages. In local battles, the British sometimes fought the German attackers to a standstill by not falling back and by counterattacking, so that the advantages of infiltration were lost. The German army failed to adapt to such situations because the highly-trained stormtroopers had moved on, leaving the less well trained follow-up troops to deal with resistance. The tail was a drag on the head. In addition, the Germans, in 1918, instead of maintaining the tempo of the individual advance, mounted a sequence of attacks on different sections of the Western Front, none of which achieved the necessary military or, even more, political affect. Furthermore, the cumulative impact of casualties hit German combat effectiveness and morale.

American entry into the war in 1917 has led some scholars to argue that the Americans were instrumental in the defeat of Germany in 1918. This interpretation misunderstands the American contribution, which was greatest in the shape of industrial capacity and credit, and was crucial in that respect to the Allies from the outset. In 1914, neither Britain nor France had an industrial system to match that of Germany, which had forged ahead of Britain in iron and steel production; and for machine tools, mass-production plant and much else, including the parts of shells, the Allies were dependent on the USA. By 1914, American industrial output was equivalent to that of the whole of Europe. By the time the USA sent its army to France, American production was so committed to producing munitions for the Allies that American industry was unable to supply the American army. Thus, the French and the British had to equip the Americans with French- and British-designed artillery and other munitions.

The Allied, principally British, ability to keep Atlantic sea lanes open and to blockade Germany ensured that America made a key contribution before formal entry into the war. Once the latter had occurred, the American navy, thanks to their vital escort vessels, contributed to the effectiveness of convoying, and, thanks to their battleships, made any idea of a decisive German naval sortie less credible. On land, however, the Americans were limited by the small size of their pre-war army and by its lack of training for trench warfare. Combined with an overly-confident failure to appreciate the nature of the conflict and to learn from allies (although the Americans reproduced British and French manuals about, among other things, grenades and mortars, and their tactical use), this led to heavy American casualties in 1918. It cannot be said that American attacks inflicted key defeats on the Germans. From July 1918, the Americans came to play a significant part in Allied operations, but they were not instrumental to victory. Nevertheless, the American role would have been more important had the war continued into 1919, when large numbers of trained American troops would have made a major difference. Furthermore, the knowledge that they would be a factor both helped stiffen Allied resolve and influenced the German high committee in 1918. Nearly two million American troops were in Europe by the Armistice.

It is necessary to focus on the breakthrough campaigns, which pose a classic problem in military analysis, as two contrasting factors have attracted particular interest. The most noteworthy in public attention is new technology. In a series of articles for the Daily Mail published in 1913, the novelist H. G. Wells had predicted that science and engineering would be crucial to the winning of the next war, which would be more mechanized than any hitherto, putting a premium on 'the best brains'.

World War One, indeed, witnessed important advances in this sphere, although the problems of using innovations to effect in a conflict of this scale and, in particular, with the size of the forces deployed, were considerable. These factors tended to lessen the impact of change, and to ensure that it was easier to be effective where the number of units was more limited: at sea, the sphere in which, compared to land, machines were more significant, as man does not fight naturally on the sea. Nevertheless, the war saw the first use of new weapons, particularly the tank, but also poison gas and mobile flamethrowers, the first large-scale military use of recently-developed weapons, particularly aircraft, and also major developments in older but still relatively recent weapons, especially submarines. All of these weapons, however, faced serious limitations. To take, for example, flamethrowers, the Germans, British and French experimented with one- and two-man flamethrowers, as well as wheeled and static models. None was mobile in the way that backpack models of the 1930s and 1940s were, and they were also severely hampered by being capable of only short-range bursts.

Aircraft played an important role, not only in fighting other aircraft, but also in influencing combat on the ground (and at sea), with reconnaissance aircraft proving especially valuable, particularly in helping direct artillery fire. Aircraft were used for spotting and reconnaissance in 1914 which was how the fighter evolved: as an armed reconnaissance plane for protection, followed by armed aircraft for shooting down spotters. Critical of the initial plan for Gallipoli as a purely naval attack, General Callwell remarked ‘As a land gunner I have no belief in that long range firing except when there are aeroplanes to mark the effect’. ‘Seeing over the hill’ altered the parameters of conflict, but as yet, despite capabilities including strafing troops and tanks, aircraft were not a tactically decisive, nor operationally effective, tool. Their role had been grasped, but execution was limited. German Zeppelin (airship) and aircraft raids, particularly on Britain, however, inflicted damage and led to an appreciable devotion of military resources to anti-aircraft defences. The impact on society, especially blackouts to make targeting harder, helped underline the 'total' character of the war, in the shape of its consequences for civilian life. Monash wrote back from London in 1916,

You can hardly imagine what the place is like. The Zeppelin scare is just like as if the whole place was in imminent fear of an earthquake. At night, the whole of London is in absolute darkness… All games and museums are closed – nothing but war – work everywhere … everything is at famine prices. Nothing is going on – in the ships, in the streets, anywhere – that has not a direct bearing on the war. Martial law everywhere – no private motors allowed, no functions, no racing … Nothing I had read conveyed to me any idea of how the war had taken hold of the whole British nation, and how every man, woman and child were bent on the one sole purpose, to prosecute the war in every form of activity.
The Germans launched bomber attacks in 1917 believing the British to be on the edge of rebellion, possibly because this was reported to them by Dutch intelligence. As a result, the attacks were intended not so much to serve attritional goals, but rather to be a decisive war-winning tool. The use of bombers, the German Gotha, reflected the rapid improvement of capability during the war, as science and technology were applied in the light of experience: Zeppelins had been revealed as vulnerable to aircraft interception, as well as to the weather. In contrast, the Gotha Mark Four could fly for six hours, had an effective range of 520 miles, could carry 1,100 pounds (or 500kg) of bombs, and could fly at an altitude of 21,000 feet (four miles or 6,400 metres), which made interception difficult. Furthermore, the crews were supplied with oxygen and with electric power to heat the flying suits.

The first (and deadliest) raid on London, a daylight one on 13 June 1917 in which fourteen planes killed 162 people and injured 432, not least as a result of a direct hit on a school that killed sixteen children, led to a public outcry and was met, in the rapid action-reaction cycle that characterized advances during the war, by the speedy development of a defensive system involving high-altitude fighters based on airfields linked by telephone to observers. This was to lead to heavy casualties among the Gothas, and to the abandonment of daylight raids. More seriously, the rationale of the campaign was misplaced, as, far from hitting British morale, the bombing led to a hostile popular response. This remained the case even in the winter of 1917-18, when the Germans unleashed four-engine Zeppelin-Staaken R-series bombers, able to fly for ten hours and to drop 4,400 pounds (or 2,000 kg) of bombs. They required, however, a major logistical support system and failed to inflict sustained serious damage. The alarm raised in sections of British civil society by German air attacks encouraged post-war theorists to emphasize the potential of air power. Yet, during the war itself, the consequences of strategic bombing, either to disrupt industrial life or to cause civilian casualties, was limited. For 1919, the British had planned long-range bombing raids on German cities, including Berlin, but the war ended before their likely impact could be assessed; although one of the planes successfully flew the Atlantic in 1919.

If Monash's account of London in 1916 was one definition of total war, it was very much war as an expression of the state. Alternative narratives of modernity, in which the state played a smaller role, and of modern warfare in which the people played a less subordinate role, were far less pertinent, although, in Russia in 1917-18, successive breakdowns of government control led to the collapse of the war effort, while, in 1918, the failure of the June offensive on the Italian front led to a marked fall in the morale of the Austrian army and encouraged a breakdown of the military establishment, with mutinies and large-scale desertions. The collapse of the ethnic cohesion of the Habsburg army was followed by that of the empire. In all the combatants, state authority had increased during the war, often, particularly in Germany, with the military playing a major role, not least in seeking to control economies: from managing resources to dictating production priorities. Any diminution of control was very unwelcome to military authorities, and this included any move towards warfare outside military control. In October 1918, the German military successfully resisted proposals within the War Cabinet for continuing the war by staging a popular uprising.

Yet, in a precursor of strategy that was to be employed by the Allies during the Second World War and, even more, to be a means to wage indirect warfare during the Cold War, there was interest in inciting popular opposition elsewhere. The Germans sought to do this in the Islamic world, in particular undermining the British in Egypt and India. Indeed, in 1918, Edmund Allenby, the British commander in Palestine, was concerned about the loyalty of Muslim soldiers in units newly-arrived from India. The Allies tried, with far more success, to elicit Arab support against the Turks, and also to tap disaffection within the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) empire. This by no means exhausted the range of options. The Germans tried to arm Irish nationalists, and, in 1917, trained Finns in preparation for an attack on Finland (then part of the Russian empire), while, in 1915, an Allied intelligence report recommended attempting to stimulate an Armenian rising and then landing British troops to exploit the situation.

The large-scale massacre of Armenian civilians by their Turkish rulers in 1915-16 was the most prominent instance of atrocities as an aspect of policy. Elsewhere, combat units also engaged in atrocities. In the case of German forces in Belgium and France in 1914, this reflected anger with opposition, particularly unexpected resistance by Belgium, as well as indiscipline and inexperience. The energy the Germans devoted to denying their atrocities reflected their lack of official acceptance of this aspect of war, but also the role of such episodes in Allied propaganda. The desire to maintain civilian morale in a lengthy struggle, as well as to appeal to public opinion in neutral countries, particularly the USA, encouraged such propaganda. It can be seen as an aspect of total war, but was far from new. The development of printing had ensured that lurid propaganda about atrocities had reached a mass audience during the European Wars of Religion, and, indeed, the slaughter of prisoners and civilians was more common then than in World War One.

To continue reading Prof. Black's account of World War One, see Part Two.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author, amongst much else, of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006), The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).


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